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The Fall to Grace: Dan Jackson and the Road Less Traveled

Daniel Jackson knows a thing or two about grace. Not just the theological concept, but the kind that comes from traveling through pastoral and organizational life in a different way. He was not, for example, born into a nurturing, fifth-generation Adventist family. Jackson’s journey into Adventist institutions started with a trip to the Canadian Union College (CaUC) cafeteria, or perhaps more accurately, a clumsy trip on its stairway while carrying a tray fully loaded with food.

The scrawny 14-year-old surveyed the mess around him, red-faced and mortified at the first impression he was making. Each of his first three meals in the cafeteria had ended up on the floor. But rather than being surrounded by hoots and jeers, the teenager found hands reaching out to help him up. And so Daniel Jackson began the long journey from Edmonton juvenile delinquent-in-training to leader of one million plus ethnically and theologically diverse Adventists in North America—the first Canadian president of the North American Division (NAD).

“Danny,” as he was known at CaUC even when he pastored Canada’s college church nearly thirty years later, has always been a favorite son, except, perhaps, to his estranged father. His home life had not been easy; his mother deposited Jackson at CaUC against the iron will of his father, who was a union organizer, two weeks after she decided, for her son’s spiritual future, to start a new life without an abusive husband. She took a job at an Adventist nursing home on Vancouver Island to support herself and help her son financially with his Adventist education.

Perhaps the youngest student at the Canadian church’s western boarding high school and college, Jackson soon became known for his indomitable spirit, his quick wit, and his fun-loving sense of adventure. When Lee Patterson, a recently converted 17-year-old carnival hand, showed up at CaUC to finish high school, two kindred spirits hailed each other. The teenagers became friends through thick, thin, spur-of-the-moment road trips, and life-long careers in church leadership.

“What I’ve admired more than anything about Danny is that he’s a people person,” says Patterson, who worked under Jackson as a pastor in the Manitoba-Saskatchewan and British Columbia Conferences, and as BC’s representative on the national Executive Committee after Jackson became president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada (SDACC) in November, 2001. “I’ve never known an organization or church that Dan’s worked at where he’s not considered Number One. He wins the admiration and trust of the people around him. I think it’s because of his honesty.”

Nowhere has that honesty found a more day-to-day, trust-building application than in committee work. “Dan believes in the saying, ‘There are no friends in the board room,’” says John Ramsey, Treasurer/Vice-president, Finance, of the SDACC, who followed Jackson from the Manitoba-Saskatchewan Conference to the SDACC. “We can be friendly and have trust,” explains Ramsey of Jackson’s take on the adage, “but with Dan, you say what you have to say in the room—not outside—and you back it up. There are no ‘old boys’ sliding by. Dan is never one to go around politicking before a meeting.”

Jackson’s sense of open inclusiveness extends to cultural issues. “He knows we’re all ‘off the boat,’ or our parents or grandparents were, “ observes Ramsey, referring to Canada’s continuing heritage of wave immigration and its challenges, “but he’s also balanced with trying to get the best job done.” One of Jackson’s last acts as leader of the SDACC was to create a full time Native Ministries Coordinator/Evangelist position, launched on June 1, 2010, after careful study.

“He’s not one to back down from any issue,” continues Ramsey. “He’ll do the research—with professionals, if necessary—and make a decision, and he doesn’t look back. He’s decisive.”

“Danny’s not afraid to step out when he believes something is right, even if it’s different,” affirms Patterson in response to a story about Jackson’s decision regarding a proposal to bring a woman to the Canadian college church pulpit in the wake of the 1995 decision not to ordain women pastors. Her subject focused on the historic roles of women in the church. “Do it,” said Jackson, on the spot, to the surprised young woman who was petitioning. “Build a whole weekend around it, not just a worship service and sermon,” he added. Then Jackson did what good administrators do: he let the young woman take charge and made her responsible.

That enabling leadership style and inclusiveness is Jackson’s trademark. Indeed, he has already broadened the NAD president’s usual circle of advisors to include university presidents. The advisors had their first meeting in early July. “He gets people to work by finding what’s important to them and letting them contribute,” says Denise Herr, Chair of CaUC’s English Department. She also served on the college church’s Worship Committee and discovered, at Jackson’s prompting, that she could write skits. “The Worship Committee has never been so creative,” adds Larry Herr, of CaUC’s Religion Department, who was a professor and head elder during Jackson’s tenure at the CaUC church.

Herr sketches Jackson’s persona: “The first thing I noticed about Dan was his energy. The second thing was his language, both body and spoken. He did not walk and gesture like a typical pastor unless he wanted to. And he spoke with very few of the typical pastoral clichés. You knew he was speaking from a strong sense of reality. He was not manipulating anyone or anything.” church.

“Unfortunately, Dan tends to move around a lot,” reflects Herr. “Maybe all that energy doesn’t like to stand still. But I was stunned, disappointed, and not a little angry when he decided to move to Ontario. My emotions are likewise mixed with his present move out of Canada. We’re losing a big supporter of CaUC and a huge facilitator of creativity.” That view is echoed by many, including Denise Herr, who observes that CaUC’s relationship with its board has never been better.

“I hope,” reflects Larry Herr, “that all that energy and openness doesn’t get lost in all the committees and formal activities of his new position.” There was no sign of that during a phone interview in which Jackson spoke candidly on a range of topics, including doubts he had had over the years about his personal ministry.

“I felt I had a calling,” says Jackson, “but I didn’t know that I fit in. But every time I tried to quit, some circumstance intervened. My mother’s faith and courage have been a blessing, and they’ve plagued me, too. You can’t walk away from that sort of thing; my mother made a very firm commitment. I always related to Jeremiah: If you can’t contend with the footmen, how will you run with the horses? In other words, ‘buck up, old chap. Either fish or cut bait.’”

“God puts us all on a path,” says Jackson, providing a glimpse of the Everyman quality that has always endeared him to co-workers. “I’m trying, but I ain’t perfect,” he says, using grammatical imperfection with the innate sense of a born leader, “and those who know me best can testify.”

“I have some strong beliefs,” continues Jackson with fervor. “A lot of people don’t agree with me, but that doesn’t mean they are the enemy or the scum of the earth, or that they have a target on their chest. Let’s talk in a respectful manner and come to resolution. We are not the enemy. We need to work together, sit down, and talk openly and kindly. That may be painful, but if we haven’t learned those basic Christian graces—to treat each other with dignity and kindness—we are just blowing it.”

There is a remarkable congruence and consistency in attitudes toward Jackson among the people interviewed. Jackson’s healthy realism is reflected in his determination that the NAD must have a “self-differentiated identity.” “We can’t be the South American Division, or Australia,” says Jackson. “The NAD has great complexity. But I see way more hope than anything else in North America.” A big part of that hope is focused on young people, and Jackson’s been known to borrow a wet suit to baptize a high school student who wanted to be baptized in a private service witnessed by his friends in the North Saskatchewan River.

“He has a real burden for young people,” says Alberta businessman Eric Rajah, co-founder of A Better World,1 a humanitarian organization with a unique business model. “It’s not just in words. He will take risks along with them.” In 2008 when Rajah appealed for volunteers to help 16,000 internally displaced people taking sanctuary at a camp in Nakuru, Kenya, twelve Parkview Adventist Academy students responded, and Jackson and his wife, Donna, a trained social worker, signed on as sponsors. Jackson was told that because the church insurance policy would not cover his trip because of the danger, he should not go. “Well, if I don’t make it back alive,” Jackson responded with thoughtful determination, “I can be replaced.” Risk, as far as Jackson is concerned, wasn’t the issue. “I can’t ask people to proclaim Christ, strengthen the believers, and serve humanity”—the SDACC’s stated Vision—“if I don’t do it myself,” he said.

Indeed, all interviewees agree that Jackson walks the walk. Joan Tenasiychuk, editorial assistant of The Messenger, whose career at the SDACC office spans three presidents, characterizes Jackson as a capable, decisive and sure leader, but above all, fair—one who listens to all sides of a debate. “He makes an effort to connect with everyone in the office when he is there,” she states. “We love our president. It was devastating to find out that he’s leaving. But we think he’ll do great.”

“NAD members and leaders will be in for a surprise, says Rajah, who has served for the past seven years with Jackson on the SDACC Committee. “If committees or people think they can stifle the mission of the church through man-made traditions, archaic policies, political agendas and irrelevant procedures, watch out!”

Rajah, who admits to differing on several occasions with Jackson, is nonetheless resolute in his praise. Jackson leads by influence, not authority, and at the end of the day, whether they’ve clashed or not, they walk away good friends, Rajah states. “What I’ve learned a lot about from Dan is humility,” as he offers a prized missive from Jackson—a harbinger of inclusiveness, a gesture of humble grace:

Hey Eric,

I am just now getting to responding to some of the greetings I received last week. Both of us continue to shake our heads at what has happened. I do want to thank you for your leadership in the great compassionate cause that is “A Better World”(1). Eric, you have taught me so much about caring for other people. Thank you for putting up with the slow processes of the church and for your constant focus on “doing things better.” Both you and Ray [Loxdale, another key member of A Better World] have been a huge blessing to me and will continue to be. I think that you need to be seen and heard on a broader level, so don’t think that you are getting out of anything. Thanks again for your greeting. God bless you, Eric. Dan


Lynn Neumann McDowell served on the church board when Jackson pastored at CaUC and was young enough to look up to and remember him as a restless teenager at Edmonton Central Church.

A version of this article appears in the current issue of SPECTRUM: The Journal of the Adventist Forum.

1. A Better World is a privately-funded humanitarian organization established by Eric Rajah and Brian Leavitt in 1990. Run entirely by more than 1,400 volunteers, the model provides seed money and staff support to projects that are structured to become self-sustaining. Though 98 percent of ABW’s members are not Adventists, 100 percent of them regularly stayed for Jackson’s spiritual reflections after their daily debriefings when the SDACC president participated in six ABW trips. ABW and the Kendu Bay, Kenya project, one of 47 around the globe, were profiled by Adventist Review as the April 5, 2001, cover story.

Here’s post-GC Session analysis by Bonnie Dwyer: Could Dan Jackson Be North America’s Education President?

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